The 10 Most Iconic Olympic Opening Ceremonies

Sochi Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony
Sochi Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony | © Republic of Korea/Flickr
Marcelina Morfin

Between the summer and winter games, there have been many incredible displays of history and culture, along with one that started some of the traditions still taking place today. Here are Culture Trip’s favorite picks.

Antwerp, 1920

After the end of World War I, the Summer Olympic Games took place in Antwerp. Several countries that were defeated in the war were not invited, including Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey. Still reeling from the war, which devastated areas of Belgium, Antwerp hosted 29 countries who came to compete and show their support. Two traditions celebrated today began with these games: the Olympic flag and the Athlete’s Oath. The Olympic flag was first revealed in Antwerp, featuring five rings in blue, yellow, black, green and red on a white background, representing every nation – one or more of the colors can be found on each country’s flag. It was also the first time the oath was introduced.

Olympic Flag

Tokyo, 1964

Japan had a lot to prove with the 1964 Summer Olympic Games, as it wanted to show the world it was a peaceful nation. The opening ceremony in Tokyo was iconic for so many reasons, including being the first Olympic games held in an Asian country. It was also the first time an opening ceremony was broadcast live across the world and in color. The ceremony also made use of many different elements that up until that point had not been used, such balloons, electronic music, fireworks and even sky-writing – an airplane ‘drew’ the Olympic Rings. Last but certainly not least, the young man, Yoshinori Sakai, who carried the Olympic torch was born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb dropped.

Los Angeles, 1984

Much like some of the movies Hollywood produces, the opening ceremony for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles could be described as grand and perhaps at times, a bit over the top. Some of the most memorable moments were when 84 pianists played ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ and John Williams’ ‘Olympic Fanfare and Theme.’ The powerful score earned Williams a Grammy Award. Another highlight was of the unscripted variety: when the Romanian team entered the stadium, they received a standing ovation because they were the only Eastern Bloc country to attend – 14 countries in total boycotted the games.

Barcelona, 1992

Barcelona’s opening ceremony was quite incredible, highlighted by the stunning lighting of the cauldron, signaling the beginning of the games. Spanish basketball star Juan Antonio San Ezifanio ran through the athletes with the torch before handing it off to the Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo. What happened next was pure artistry. Rebollo aimed a lit arrow and pointed it toward the seven-story cauldron; he then released it, sending it high over the crowds, lighting the flame.

Sydney, 2000

On September 15, 2000, 3.5 billion people tuned in to watch the opening ceremony for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. It opened up very simply with one horseman on an Australian Stock Horse; once he cracks his whip, the ceremony takes off as 120 additional riders enter the stadium. As with any opening ceremony, music was prevalent throughout with singers and a marching band comprised of 2,000 members. Another special moment came with the Parade of Nations when North and South Korea entered the stadium as one. As for the lighting of the flame? That honor went to Cathy Freeman, an Indigenous sprinter who went on to win a gold medal in the games.

Athens, 2004

The birthplace of the Olympics, Athens was host once again in 2004 for the Summer Games, and they produced one of the most beautiful opening ceremonies ever seen – it resembled one elaborate theatrical performance from which viewers could not turn away. Magical spectacles represented the seas surrounding the land and artifacts that make up the history Greece.

Beijing, 2008

China wanted to impress the world, and they no doubt succeeded with the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Many people today consider this the most impressive opening ceremony ever, with a brilliant and dazzling display of pageantry. Held in the Bird’s Nest stadium, the show had approximately 14,000 performers celebrating the culture and history of China, and featured elaborate fireworks, and 2,008 illuminated fou drums. The cauldron lightening was also spectacular; six-time medalist Li Ning, a gymnast, was suspended by a cable as he ran a lap in the air before setting the torch aglow.

London, 2012

In 2012, all eyes were on London, as the city hosted the Summer Olympic Games. An estimated one billion people around the world watched the opening ceremony, or Isles Of Wonder, a celebration of the history and the people of the UK. Directed by famed film and theatre director, producer and screenwriter Danny Boyle, the opening ceremony was incredible with a brilliant combination of historical events reenacted, humorous moments (Mr. Bean), and many surprises. There was also an stunning musical soundtrack during the Parade of Nations, a magical cauldron comprised of 204 ‘petals’ – one for each nation – designed by Thomas Heatherwick accompanied by plenty of fireworks.

Sochi, 2014

In 2014, Sochi, Russia hosted the Winter Olympic Games, and while there was controversy surrounding the games, the world watched with anticipation to see what the opening ceremony would entail and if it would impress. It most certainly fulfilled expectations with its colorful display of performances that showcased the Russian culture, both past (ancient) and present, all within a glittering Winter Wonderland, captivating audiences from around the world. There were dancers, singers, actors and props, from statues to vibrant onion domes. The ceremony did, however, have a few glitches; five sparkling snowflakes were supposed to transform into the Olympic rings, but one did not cooperate. Nevertheless, it remained a memorable ceremony.

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